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The Diverse Schools of Deccan Miniature Painting

An Introduction to Deccan Miniature Painting

A distinct school of painting flourished and evolved in the plateau region of southern India, somewhere beyond the Vindhya mountain range, under several Sultans of the Deccan region in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This unique synthesis of art and cultural elements culminated in the creation of the unique style of Deccan Miniature painting.

For a long time, Deccan Miniature Painting was considered to be part of Indo-Persian art. It was placed into arbitrary categories such as Persian, Middle-Eastern, Turkish, and Mughal. It was considered unique, but not unique enough to be distinguished from the rest and placed into its own category.

The Evolution of Deccan Miniature painting

Sultan Abdullah Qutub Shah Enthroned with Dancers and Attendants, Golconda, c. 1630. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Most painters in the Deccan courts were immigrants from Turkey, Iran, and Europe. They brought with them the knowledge of unique artistic styles and techniques. When they began working as painters, their unique styles began integrating and influencing the direction that Miniature painting moved in.

Due to its rich colours, luxurious and sensual environments, and electrifying yet static compositions, Deccan Miniature painting reveals a kind of moody romanticism that even Mughal paintings often lack.

Islamic Influences and Comparison to the Mughal School

Deccan Miniature painting
Three rajas and attendants, 1700–20, with strong Mughal influences. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Deccan School is comparable to the Mughal School as they both derived inspiration from Islamic elements and Persian art. However, they differ in their approach to this influence. While the Mughal school adopted such elements and integrated them seamlessly into their painting style, the Deccan School highlighted them as separate from the traditional Indian artistic idiom.

In the second half of the 16th century, while Mughal painting flourished under Emperor Akbar, the blend of artistic elements in the Deccan courts coagulated into a concrete visual synthesis. This style of Miniature painting evolved independently from other Indian styles and shailis. However, certain painters such as Ruknuddin visited the Deccan and took a lot of inspiration from Deccani Miniatures.

The Deccani School evolved alongside the Mughal School, which makes it easy to compare the two. Deccani paintings feature a vibrant and richly hued palette with a focus on white and gold, starkly contrasting the Mughal School’s pastels and subdued hues. Due to their brilliant colours and animated compositions, they are associated with luxury and unrestrained decadence. They take inspiration from Turkish, Persian, and Iranian painting traditions, especially in the depictions of arabesques: a surface decoration that is composed of interlooping and interwoven foliage, tendrils and floral elements. Human figures are elongated, similar to those seen in Vijaynagara wall paintings.

Distinct Features of Deccan Miniature Painting

Ibrahim Adil Shah II riding his favourite elephant, Atash Khan, Bijapur, c. 1600. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Deccan Miniature painting prominently features region-specific themes and complex compositions. They portray a romantic feel through the use of sensual motifs and styles, especially while painting human figures.

The Deccan School flourished under rulers who rewarded artists and commissioned pieces from them. Portrait paintings and religious themes were especially popular with rulers.

Many portraits help us trace the order of events in the past, and their chronological nature helps in the study of history. We can observe the documentary nature of portrait paintings in most of the Schools of Indian Miniature painting.

The Deccan School is characterised by a strong affinity for regional themes, brilliant colours, complex compositions, and a romantic atmosphere presented in a sophisticated and mature style. Four subschools, namely Ahmednagar, Bijapur, Golconda, and Hyderabad, flourished under different rulers, each contributing to the distinct identity of the Deccan School.

Let’s explore the sub-schools and styles of Deccan Miniature Painting.

Deccan Miniature Painting: The Ahmednagar School of Painting

Deccan Miniature painting Tarif-i-Hussain Shahi
Paitning from the Tarif-i-Hussain Shahi, 1565–69. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ahmednagar was the birthplace of Deccani Miniature painting. Hussain Nizam Shah I sponsored many artists of the Ahmednagar School. This school shows strong Persian influences, such as bright skies, towering horizons and Persian-style scenery. The Tarif-i-Hussain Shahi’ manuscript is one of the most famous Miniature works from Ahmednagar. It is also one of the oldest known examples of Deccan Miniature painting, dating back to 1565 A.D.

The Ahmednagar School of Painting features bold, rich and brilliantly sensual colours. These paintings feature local clothing such as ghagra cholis and two pigtails with tassels tied to the ends. Though this style of dressing is commonly associated with northern India, the women of these paintings also tie a scarf around their hips, which is a southern trend reminiscent of the Lepakshi murals. They also wear their hair up in buns.

Deccan Miniature Painting: The Bijapur School of Painting

Deccan Miniature painting Nujum al-Ulum manuscript
A painting from the Nujum al-Ulum manuscript. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Bijapur School flourished under the patronage of Ali Adil Shah I and Ibrahim II. Ibrahim’s love for Indian music is evident through his expertise on the topic, which he displayed through his book, Nauras-nama. We speculate that he was the one who commissioned a Ragamala series in the 1560’s.

The approximately 400 paintings of the Nujum al-Ulum manuscript contain abundant astronomical imagery, which we believe is an influence of the Ottoman Turkish manuscripts. Some other notable characteristics of the Bijapur School are rich colour palettes (something found in all the Deccan Schools), the use of Persian painting traditions while painting certain species of flora, extravagant use of gold paint, and certain Persian symbols and motifs.

Deccan Miniature Painting: The Golconda School of Painting

Yogini with a Mynah Bird, early 17th century. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Golconda was the richest of the Deccan kingdoms by the end of the 16th century.

This was due to the booming export of iron and cotton from the east coast to countries in Southeast Asia. Both men as well as women wore gold jewellery, which is highlighted in the Miniatures of the time.

The Qutub Shahi emperors provided a lot of patronage to the artists of the Golconda School. Some of the best art from this period was created during the reign of Muhammad Quli Qutab Shah. Dance was a major theme of the Golconda School. This sub-school of Deccan Miniature Painting also shows a strong Iranian influence.

The ‘Yogini with a Mynah Bird’ and the ‘Lady Smoking Hookah’ are famous works of art associated with the Golconda School of Deccan Miniature Painting.

Deccan Miniature Painting: The Hyderabad School of Painting

A composite painting of the Buraq. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Hyderabad School of Painting evolved during the third quarter of the 18th century, during the rule of Nizam-ul-Mulk of the Asaf Jahi dynasty.

Similar to the other schools, Hyderabadi Miniatures feature bright colours and local attire. Along with royal portraits, religious imagery and themes like the Ragamala, this school also captured the daily lives of aristocrats and scenes from lawns and courtyards. The above painting features the Buraq, a composite animal associated with Islam. It is a winged creature with a human head and a horse body.

These paintings showcase an obvious Deccan idiom through the portrayal of clothing, flora and fauna, and colour palettes.

The Importance and Decline of the Deccan School

Due to the number of skilled artists that immigrated to the Deccan, the region’s artistic evolution sped up considerably. Deccan Miniature painting developed a mature style with electrifying compositions and intense colours. It went through periods of rapid growth and stagnation, reaching its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries. The school began to decline after the Mughals captured the Deccan region, sometime in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

However, painting continued to evolve in Hyderabad and in territories ruled by the Nizam. The Deccan School, with its vibrant colour palettes and unique imagery, is worth studying for its rich historical importance and cultural significance in the world of traditional Indian art.

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By Melissa D’Mello

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